According to contemporary psychodynamic theory, the working alliance is one of three components of the psychotherapy relationship. The other two are the transference/countertransference configuration and the real relationship. Counseling psychologists across a broad range of therapeutic approaches who do not ascribe to the importance of the latter two constructs believe that the alliance is a critical component for working effectively with their clients. Thus, the working alliance is a “pantheoretical” construct applicable to every counseling approach. An effective working alliance involves an agreement between counselor and client about the goals of their work, and agreement about the session-by-session tasks (i.e., counseling techniques and activities) that are necessary to achieve these goals. The third component of an effective working alliance is an emotional bond between counselor and client, characterized by mutual respect and the client’s strong sense of being understood and valued by the counselor.
Research suggests that no single variable predicts more variance in the ultimate outcome of counseling than the quality of the working alliance. Several meta-analytic studies suggest that the quality of the alliance may be more important than the particular techniques that a counselor uses (although it is still important that a client believes that whatever approach the counselor selects will be effective). These studies suggest that the quality of the working alliance, measured as early as the third counseling session, predicts 20% to 25% of the eventual variability in counseling effectiveness.
Many experienced counselors believe that all three components are essential for an effective working alliance and that, for example, a strong bond cannot compensate for a lack of agreement about the goals of counseling. Recently, experts have emphasized the importance of a counselor’s multicultural competency to understand a client’s worldview so that the goals and tasks negotiated are culturally appropriate for the client. This competency also ensures that a productive bond forms based on the counselor’s understanding of the client’s cultural perspective.
Proponents of interpersonal approaches to facilitating change believe that maladaptive patterns in a client’s relationships with significant others are likely to be manifest in the counseling relationship as well. From this perspective, ruptures in the working alliance are to be expected. As counselors and clients work together to heal these inevitable breaches in their working relationship, clients gain insight into their maladaptive patterns and learn new skills for relating in a more satisfactory way—first with the counselor, and then with others.
The Working Alliance Inventory, developed by A. O. Horvath and L. S. Greenberg, is one of the most widely used self-report measures of the working alliance. Separate forms assess the counselor and client perspectives on the alliance.
- Gelso, C. J., & Hayes, J. A. (1998). The psychotherapy relationship: Theory, research and practice. New York: Wiley.
- Martin, D. J., Garske, J. P., & Davis, M. K. (2000). Relation of the therapeutic alliance with outcome and other variables: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 438-450.
- Safran, J. D., & Muran, J. C. (2000). Negotiating the therapeutic alliance: A relational treatment guide. New York: Guilford Press.